The Importance of Empathy AND Accountability

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Your child is acting out.  They’re yelling and crying. They’re stomping and stammering.  They’re arguing and negotiating for the one-millionth time. Maybe they’re avoiding, ignoring, or just plain shutting down.

They’re resisting your directions to STOP what they’re doing and either (a) refocus on the current task at hand, (b) transition to a new activity, or (c) get going right now!

Can you relate?  You’re not alone.

So many parents and teachers are feeling drained, even defeated, by these daily power struggles.  This is especially true during the long, slow slog through COVID uncertainty.

Some of us tend towards being overly sympathetic to our children’s stress. We understand how hard things are for them.  We don’t want them to suffer.  We nurture and cajole, empathize and comfort.  We offer plenty of reassurance and encouragement and affirmations.  We’re huggers.  And honestly, we avoid confronting whenever possible, because who really needs more stress right now?!

Others focus more on making sure our kids can follow the rules and do what they need to.  We don’t want them wallowing about in the muck of their misery.  They need to suck it up, to push through it.  We don’t have time (or patience) for the drama.  Kids need to learn how to face adversity, follow directions without arguing so much, and get things done even when they don’t like it.  We’re doers.  We see a problem, we want to confront it, fix it, and move on.

So, what’s the best way to help a kid who’s struggling with the daily demands of home and/or school?

Harnessing the Power of BOTH/AND

It’s to get rid of the false dichotomy between empathy and accountability.  It’s to get rid of “either/or” thinking.  It’s to implement a “both/and” strategy, instead.

We need to continually balance both empathy AND accountability in dealing with our children or our students.  (By the way, this works well with our partners, colleagues, and communities, too.)

Our children will respond best when we are wisely and compassionately responsive to their needs.  When we combine our head and hearts.  When we’re both WARM and FIRM.

If we’re emotionally reactive or avoidant ourselves – either overly empathic or overly dismissive – we set the child up to not know how to deal with their emotions.  We inadvertently teach the child to become overwhelmed and stuck in their difficult emotions (eg., frustration, anger, anxiety, worry, depression, despair, guilt, shame) or we teach them to bottle it up, suppress or deny it.  Either way, a volcano eruption is bound to be just around the corner.

Instead, let us practice the middle way (well-known from Goldilocks to the Buddha). Let’s seek to provide our children with a balanced measure of BOTH empathy for their emotional needs AND accountability for appropriate behavior choices.

They need to learn to recognize their emotional difficulties.  We can teach them to be aware of what they’re thinking and feeling in the moment.  We can remind them that any of these feelings are okay (they’re valid, they are what they are) AND it’s what you do with them that counts.

We teach our children they have choices.   They can act out these emotions in unhelpful ways – yell, cry, argue, avoid, shut down. Or they can develop healthy, helpful expressions of their needs.  They can pause and breathe.  They can take a break if they need to.  They can use their words, not their fists.  They can use their words respectfully.  They can seek help in solving the problem.  They can become more comfortable with discomfort.  They can learn to do things that aren’t easy.

They can learn all these things if we teach them how.  And if we hold them accountable.

We don’t want to reinforce negative behaviors with extra attention, affection, or letting them “get their way.”  We hold firm, even in the face of a temporary increase in acting-out behaviors.  We endure the short-term pain of their eruptions, to realize the long-term gain of breaking these bad emotional habits and forming new ones.

We follow-through with fair and effective consequences (more on this another day). All of our behavior choices have natural consequences.  We help our children learn to make the connections between their thoughts and feelings, and the behavior choices they make.  Then we help them see how the behavior choices they make lead to more or less desirable outcomes (i.e., consequences).

Teaching Our Children Self-Control

This isn’t about behavior management; it’s about emotion coaching.  It’s less about commanding and controlling our children.  It’s more about teaching them self-control.

Isn’t that really what we all want for our children, our students, in the long run?  For them to become self-sufficient, self-regulating, and perhaps self-actualized citizens?

Then we need to model this for our children.  We need to practice both self-compassion and honest accountability for our own behavior choices, first.  Then teach them how to do the same.

Let’s not get stuck in the emotional mud with our children.  Let’s not ignore real emotional turmoil either.  Let’s meet it head on, with an open heart, then move through it, with a clear mind.  Warm and firm.  Practicing both empathy and accountability.

A pretty good recipe for success.